Jennifer Lee searches out star-studded Chinese eateries in Australia, Paris and London
CHINESE food is served on all seven continents, even Antarctica, where Monday is usually Chinese food night at McMurdo Station, the main American scientific outpost on the icy continent. It is arguably the most pervasive cuisine on the planet and beyond: NASA offers its astronauts thermostabilised sweet-and-sour pork and hot-and-sour soup.
Australia has developed a sophisticated culinary scene and is home to two of the top Chinese restaurants in the world. The first is Sydney’s Billy Kwong and it has a rare distinction: it is one of 10 restaurants around the world that The New York Times gourmand R.W. Apple considered worth getting on a plane for. The other is Flower Drum, in Melbourne, which was one of Restaurant magazine’s top 50 restaurants in the world for four years in a row.
Located in a slightly bohemian neighbourhood, Billy Kwong is an establishment of modest size with an outsized reputation. Kylie Kwong, a fourth-generation ChineseAustralian, opened the restaurant in 2000 with business partner Bill Granger (the merger of their names produced Billy Kwong). While the Chinese language was not maintained through the generations of Kwong’s Australian family, the cuisine was.
And while the dishes I try are recognisably Chinese food, they have a fresh, inspiring sheen cast over them. The sweet corn soup is made with fresh corn kernels instead of creamed corn. Her sweet-and-sour sauce uses fresh tomatoes. She prefers the French technique of reducing to the Chinese technique of adding thickeners such as corn starch. Kwong’s modern Chinese is not modern in terms of fusion. The evolution occurred not through recipes but through the underlying ingredients.
In an era of celebrity chefs and multimillion-dollar designers, Flower Drum has achieved international status without the aid of brand names. Its interior design, while elegant, is not particularly dramatic. It has never relied on an innovative gimmick or a media-savvy spin. What Flower Drum does offer is superb service and classic Chinese dishes made with high-quality ingredients. The elegant simplicity of the dishes lets the lush ingredients shine through, like a beautiful woman who knows she looks her best in a white summer dress. Each bite — gigantic scallops, Wagyu beef — is to be savoured.
I ask its founder, Gilbert Lau, point-blank: Why is Flower Drum famous? It took more than 20 years to build the restaurant’s reputation, he explains. Flower Drum opened in 1975. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that it received international recognition.
Since then it has appeared on Restaurant ’ s list of the world’s top 50 eateries four times. Ultimately what lifted Flower Drum was the power of word of mouth.
A 2003 travel article in The New York Times by Apple proclaimed that Flower Drum might be one of the best Chinese restaurants anywhere. People like restaurants they have heard a lot about, Lau says. The harder it is to get in, the more they want to go.
People like to talk about their experiences: travel, concerts, books, films. Of those, restaurants provide something that everyone can relate to, that can be enjoyed over and over, and that are relatively affordable. Restaurant dining is an ephemeral experience. Once you have eaten the meal, it is gone. All you have left is the memory.
But memories become stories, and stories, in turn, derive value from being shared. So perhaps what we seek in great restaurants is not only the immediate succession of sensations at the dinner table but the tale that can be told afterward.
Meanwhile, two of the world’s trendiest Chinese restaurants are in Paris and London.
One of the most fashionable places to eat in Paris is on a street around the corner from the Theatre du Palais-Royal. Limousines clog the narrow block, spewing out A-list celebrities in painfully stylish outfits. The shaded windows and a velvet curtain give way to the red, chintzy splendour of a Chinese restaurant that could be in any European country, but is actually like no other in the world.
Dave Cheung’s eponymous restaurant, Dave, at 12 rue Richelieu, boasts a clientele that would launch the career of any aspiring publicist. Leonardo DiCaprio and his buddy Tobey Maguire have been coming here for years; so too have the fashion establishment: Kate Moss, Anna Wintour and Marc Jacobs are all regulars. Where people sit can take on the portentous symbolism of a fashion show or a high school cafeteria.
The enduring popularity of this modest Paris restaurant over two decades is something of an enigma. People certainly don’t come to Dave because of the food, which is predictable at best, or the decor, which is neither tasteful enough to be classy nor modern enough to be hip.
The nicotine-yellowed Polaroids on the restaurant walls prove a compelling archive of late 20th-century celebrity and the power of Dave’s appeal. There is Madonna, with bleached hair and heavy black eyeliner, when she went through her military-bustier Vogue phase. There is the cast of Sex and the City. There is Janet Jackson before the notorious Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. There is John Malkovich before Being John Malkovich. There is John Malkovich after Being John Malkovich.
What all of the pictures have in common is the presence of a single, thick-browed face: the restaurant owner.
Dave is the kind of restaurant owner who doesn’t offer menus. Instead, always taking the orders himself, he asks his clients standard questions: How hungry are you? Is there anything you don’t eat? Then he decides what he will serve. The bills, averaging ($65) a person, arrive tastefully at the end.
Dave’s family is originally from China’s northern port city of Tianjin, near Beijing. They moved to Paris in 1967 because his mother had a friend here.
Dave’s story of success started at his parents’ restaurant when a British Vogue art director, named Barney Wan, brought his colleague Grace Coddington, a creative director, to lunch there.
Fast-forward to 1982, when Dave opened his own restaurant only five minutes from the Jardin des Tuileries, where Paris Fashion Week events were being held. The restaurant was appealing because it was geographically convenient, because it was accessible Chinese fare, and because Dave spoke English; the American and British fashion crowd was weary of slogging through Parisian French. The Hollywood set found its way to Dave and the music industry inevitably followed.
Dave has known many of his customers for years, before they were bold-faced names. He points to a picture of a very young, very wispy Leonardo DiCaprio at a birthday party. Sofia Coppola has been coming here since she was 13 years old. There is also a picture of Kate Moss when she was just starting out.
For these customers, Dave is the same. His food is the same. The cloisonne table lamps, white plates, and silverware are the same as when he first opened in 1982. Dave is like the neighbourhood Chinese joint you went to when you were a kid. He remembers you. He knows what you like. He dotes on you. Only his neighbourhood happens to be defined as the world of celebrity, with a geographical range that spans the globe.
I hadn’t expected that the top-ranked Chinese restaurant in the world, inclusive of China, would be in London but that is where Restaurant puts it: Hakkasan, founded by Alan Yau and Singapore chef Tong Chee Hwee, at 8 Hanway Place, Fitzrovia.
London, with its influx of international immigrants and influences, has become home to a number of the world’s most recognised restaurants. Hong Kong-born Yau threw Chinese food into the upscale London restaurant mix when he opened Hakkasan in 2001 to fawning reviews and a coveted Michelin star.
Three years later, Yau followed up with Yauatcha, a nouvelle dim sum parlour. Yau made it possible to once again say sexy and Chinese restaurant in the same sentence. Once upon a time, Chinese food in England was considered exotic and chic.
Men impressed their dates with their sophistication by taking them to Chinese restaurants. Upper-class housewives threw afternoon mahjong parties and pored over outlandish recipes calling for black sauce made with beans and sesame oil.
But this image slowly eroded as Chinese restaurants became a victim of their own success. Immigrants flooded the dining scene with casual eateries, selling British-Chinese dishes such as crispy shredded beef (which has a whole lot of crisp, a lot of shred, and not a whole lot of beef). Chinese food became commonplace, chintzy and cheap.
Hakkasan rejected that. When we visit, its sprawling underground lair surrounds us with sleekness and beauty. The restaurant’s decor is dramatic. The hostesses are striking. Our waiter, a black man born in Paris, could be a model. Instead of red lanterns and golden dragons, Hakkasan is packed with London yuppies looking glamorous in the dim lighting. I see few Chinese faces. My friend whispers, Chinese people wouldn’t pay this much for Chinese food. It is true. The Hakkasan and Yauatcha menus, written in Chinese and English, list classic Chinese dishes cast with some surprising twists (ostrich dumplings, stir-fried venison, Chilean sea bass dumplings, mango spring rolls).
While the food is indeed impeccable and well executed, what gives Hakkasan its fame is the scene. Anyone could feel hip here, just through osmosis. Even I feel transformed. Generations ago, Chinese restaurants sold sophistication along with their food.
Today, Hakkasan has reinvigorated that transaction, trading a night of its enchantment for the price of appetiser, main course, dessert and drinks. This is an edited extract from TheFortune CookieChronicles by Jennifer Lee (Grand Central Publishing, $39.99), out in early July. Secrets of the stove — Page 6
Wok stars: Clockwise from top, Billy Kwong in Sydney; London’s hip Hakkasan; Flower Drum in Melbourne; Hakkasan